Re-Thinking Stress

Sarah Lidstrom, RN
Corvallis Family Medicine
1037 Main Street
Corvallis, MT 59828
(406) 961-4661

Re-Thinking Stress
For as long as we can remember, we have been hearing that stress is harmful to our health and that we must eliminate stress from our lives. However, most of us have wondered how that can be possible with the ever increasing demands of daily life.

Stress causes a definite physical reaction in our bodies. In fact, this is true for all animals. Hormones such as adrenaline and oxytocin are released in our bodies during times of stress. Our heart rate increases, our breathing becomes rapid, our brain activity increases and our muscles become tense. In nature, this is referred to as a "fight or flight" response. Our bodies are preparing us to take action in response to some external demand. That demand may be the stress of our daily routine, of raising a family, worrying about finances or challenges at work. It may also be a sudden change in our life, such as a divorce or a move, or it may be a traumatic event such as a dangerous accident or the death of a loved one. Each of these circumstances cause our bodies to react, and unfortunately, it is not always possible for us to eliminate the source of stress as we have been taught we need to do.

Many causes of stress are long term demands or events that have a lasting impact on our lives. This is where the situation becomes even more difficult because it is the prolonged stress response that creates health concerns. Headaches, muscle aches, stomach upset, fatigue, insomnia, depression, anxiety, and suppressed immune function are just some of the problems that can arise with chronic stress.

So what can we do to prevent our stress reactions from becoming long term? Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal suggests that simply a new way of viewing stress may lead to a solution.

In her latest book, "The Upside of Stress", McGonigal admits that for years, she has been teaching that stress is our enemy, when she now knows that it is how we view the stress in our lives that determines its effect. McGonigal suggests we should embrace our stress response, as it is our body's way of helping us rise to the challenge before us. We should not fear our body's reaction, but instead utilize the efficiency it provides us during these moments. The hormones released during this time are meant to help our bodies function in their most effective capacity. The adrenaline that causes our increased respiratory rate provides our body with a greater oxygen supply, while our pounding heart delivers that oxygen efficiently throughout our bodies. Our brain receives more oxygen and its activity increases. The oxytocin that is released in our bodies causes us to seek compassion and social interaction, and as a result, we surround ourselves with the love and support that we need in times of distress. By embracing these changes, we are able to use our energy productively and for positive action. We can become mindful of our body's needs to more effectively implement interventions to adjust to the challenges in our lives. If the chaos of our daily routine is overwhelming us, we can take advantage of our increased brain function to efficiently organize and plan. If we are feeling anxious or stressed about an upcoming presentation at work or life event, we need to recognize that our bodies are not shutting down, but instead are telling us that this is important to us, and are arming us with the extra resources we need to be successful. When we feel stressed about change or tragedy, we should allow our oxytocin surplus to help us bring support into our lives. Stress research is showing that having this mindset about the stress response can maintain and even improve our health and happiness despite the challenges in our lives.

In certain instances, such as those involving grief and major negative life changes, acceptance and adaptation are naturally going to take time. During these periods we should focus our stress response on using our energy to become mindful of what our body's needs are. In these trying times, our body provides us with a "fight" response that will allow us to succeed in overcoming the challenge before us if we are able to take advantage of the resources provided to us. We can use that energy to focus on our daily eating habits, exercise routine, and other aspects of caring for ourselves as we endure a difficult situation. We can utilize our oxytocin to seek the social support and external resources we need, and consult with our primary care provider to seek any medical assistance needed.

We have all experienced some kind of stress in the last year. It's safe to say we are never going to be able to eliminate stress from our lives, but we don't have to. In fact we don't want to, we just need to apply this new way of thinking about stress. So the next time our hearts are racing and we start to feel anxious, we need to recognize the positive biological changes taking place and take advantage of them.

Questions and or comments regarding this week's health column please contact Sarah Lidstrom, RN at Corvallis Family Medicine, a Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital owned clinic, 1037 Main Street, Corvallis, MT 59828. Working together to build a healthier community!


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